Roy Williams, Dairy Calf and Heifer Association member, provides the following insight on automatic calf feeders.
Some management decisions that need to be made when implementing automatic feeders are:
- How much milk (or milk replacer) to feed;
- How many calves to put in each pen;
- How soon after birth the calves will be introduced to the automatic feeder;
- Whether to feed milk or milk replacer, and (if both) which calves get which feed; and
- The details of the housing design.
Published peer-reviewed papers give some guidance on these questions. All researchers report that feeding only the "conventional" 1 gallon of milk per day per calf results in each calf making many extra trips to the feeder each day in which the calf does not get milk. Calves that are fed at least 2 gallons a day spend about half as much time (41 minutes) at the feeder as calves fed only 1 gallon per day (77 minutes). This may seem backwards, but similar results have been reported in several cases, and there are no recent reports contradicting this guidance. This has important implications for how many calves can be fed from one feeder (35 vs.18, by these numbers).
Changes in feeding behavior by sick calves depend in part on the amount of milk allocated per day to each calf. This may take some time to work out on your farm, so that you can use information provided by the automatic feeder to help identify sick calves.
Moving the calf from one environment to another causes stress responses in the calf (including a depressed immune system). This is a stress that we should seek to minimize by moving the calf as soon after birth as possible. It may not be feasible to put the calf in the group pen within 6 hours of birth, but producers should consider trying to incorporate this long-standing guidance as far as possible. One approach is to include a small gate that can be moved into place to prevent other calves from intruding into the feeding area while the calf caregiver works with a new calf on how to eat from the automatic feeder.